At the start of his 2010 comedy special Hilarious, Louis C.K. greeted the crowd with a discomfiting thought. “Most people are dead,” he announced. “Did you know that? It’s true: Out of all the people that ever were, almost all of them are dead. There are way more dead people. And you’re all gonna die, and then you’re gonna be dead for way longer than you were alive. That’s mostly what you’re ever gonna be: You’re just dead people that didn’t die yet.”
It’s a perspective most of us don’t want to face — our short lifespans are less than a speck in the history of an infinite, unfeeling universe — and it’s not something we go to the movies to be reminded of. But in this Friday’s terrific indie drama A Ghost Story, the enormity of death — not just its occurrence but also the amount of time we won’t exist — is the central focus. That may sound like grim subject matter, but trust me, it’s nothing compared with the quiet hell the movie’s main character experiences. Not only is he dead — he’s only just now realizing how great his married life was, if only he’d ever stopped to notice.
A Sundance smash, A Ghost Story stars Casey Affleck as an unnamed regular guy living in Texas. (The end credits identify him only as C.) He and his wife (played by Rooney Mara) — she’s listed in the credits as M — don’t seem that different from a lot of couples. He’s a little distant; she’s a little quiet and restless. But they appear to love each other. Then he dies in a car crash. While he’s in the morgue, however, he suddenly sits up, dressed in a sheet with two eyeholes — like he’s a kid dressing up as a ghost for Halloween. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s dead and that he can’t speak or interact with the living, who have no idea he’s there.
Writer-director David Lowery (who made 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with Affleck and Mara, as well as the Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon) has said he was inspired by the dark realization that nothing lasts. “Over the past two years I’ve thought a lot about the idea that, one day, it will all be meaningless and evaporate,” he told IndieWire earlier this year. “I’ve had a lot of trouble dealing with that.”
That anxiety was folded into a fight Lowery had with his wife about whether to move to L.A. or remain in Texas. For his part, Lowery wanted to stay put: “It was literally like I didn’t want to leave this one particular house. I was so bummed out. Our bed was gone. We were sleeping on the floor. But still I was like, ‘I love this place. I don’t want to leave. What if we just stayed?’ I recognize that as a flaw in myself, that I could be so attached to something so technically ephemeral.”
In A Ghost Story, Lowery articulates these concerns — wanting to stay, but knowing that everything eventually changes. In fact, Affleck’s character in the film gets Lowery’s wish: He stays in the house. But it becomes a nightmare scenario as he’s powerless to comfort his widowed wife, or later, stop her from trying to get on with her life and meet someone new.
Throughout the film’s first half, Lowery seems to be working in the same vein as movies like Ghost or Wings of Desire, in which ghosts or angels come to the bittersweet realization that observing human behavior from afar isn’t nearly as satisfying as being human yourself. But in A Ghost Story’s second half, the film sidesteps Ghost’s cheesy love-conquers-all message. In its place, C encounters more existential terror: He will never be able to make contact with M — even though she swears she senses his presence — and when she finally decides to move out, he has to stay in the house and hang out with whoever moves in next. And then the people after that. And then the people after that. Forever.
Anxieties like Lowery’s are common: At their core, they speak to our need to exert control over elements we’re unable to influence. Death comes for us all, and time keeps marching on, whether we like it or not. Affleck’s character discovers all of this in the worst way imaginable. It’s common for a movie’s main character to be its most active and resourceful, but not in A Ghost Story. C loses everything at the beginning and spends the remainder of the film watching impotently as the universe methodically moves forward without him, rendering him a mere spectator. Sadder still, it’s only in the retracing of his life that C discovers how much his wife loved him — and how little he appreciated her while he had the chance.
Sometimes, people fear death because they assume they won’t exist, but A Ghost Story offers another, more terrifying possibility: Maybe after we die, we’re cursed to agonize over our mistakes for all of eternity.